“Arsenic and Old Lace” at Meadow Brook Theatre, Oakland University Campus, Rochester Hills MI
Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Meadow Brook Theatre
“Old Lace” Offers Excellent Cast, Nonstop Laughs
To kick off their 53rd season, Meadow Brook Theatre presents Joseph Kesselring’s beloved classic, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, a lively black comedy interwoven with multiple storylines and nonstop action. The setting is Brooklyn in 1939, in the elegant historic home of the Brewster family. There are plenty of nuts in this family tree. They not only have skeletons in their closet, but bodies in the cellar, too.
Young Mortimer Brewster is your basic Everyman theatre critic, living a carefree life and planning to marry Elaine, the girl next door. He’s blissfully unaware that his two sweet and generous aunties, Martha and Abby, have been surprising lonely gentlemen callers with their homemade elderberry wine with just a touch of poison, all in the name of charity. And his brother Teddy? He really thinks he is Teddy – Roosevelt, that is. Then Mortimer’s long-lost evil brother Jonathan shows up one dark night, with his drunken plastic surgeon, Dr Einstein, in tow. Was murder ever this much fun?
The show opened on Broadway in January 1941 and ran for over three years – 1444 performances – making it one of the most successful plays of its time. Frank Capra began his film version at the end of 1941 (and the start of WW II) but could not release it until September 1944, after the Broadway hit show finally closed, as demanded by the play’s producers.
Meadow Brook presents their “Old Lace” the way it was originally shown on Broadway, in three acts with two intermissions. The time flies, the action is fast-paced and full of laughs. The professional, nimble cast brings well-formed and engaging characters to their crystal clear performances. The two elder ladies, decked out in genteel Edwardian attire, seem to have parachuted in from a bygone era. Local stage and TV veteran Ruth Crawford is simply endearing as Martha, the picture of saintly innocence. Her sister Abby, played with lilting girlishness by Mary Robin Roth, scurries back and forth with tiny steps, like a squirrel.
Tim Dolan (“Burt and Me”) as their beleaguered nephew Mortimer, delivers some good comic takes and double-takes, and his reactions are pure physical comedy. Jonathan (Michael Brian Ogden) brings a powerful persona, a menacing voice and scary makeup to show all his botched plastic surgeries. (A fascinating side note: Jonathan is described in the play as looking “like Boris Karloff”, but the role was actually played by Boris Karloff in the original Broadway play – a great casting joke by Kesselring.) The rest of the supporting cast, notably Phil Powers as Dr Einstein, all deliver strong performances.
Meadow Brook Artistic Director Travis Walter makes clever use of staging, and the actors’ movements, on the multi-level set. Most importantly, he keeps the pace humming along, with visual engagement and crisp, cohesive direction. Judging by the standing ovation at the end of a recent matinee performance, this brilliantly funny play tickles the funny bone and then some, just tailor-made for Halloween.
When: Now through October 28, 2018
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays
Tickets $30 to $45
Where: Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309